The Rice Program at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT contributes to food and nutrition security relying on one of the most widely consumed foods in Latin America. Among other actions, throughout the last five decades, it has been continuously improving this crop, with the purpose of increasing its productivity, reduce its environmental impact, and adapting it to climate change, which has fostered dignified jobs for the men and women who cultivate and harvest it in different parts of the world.
Direct seeding is a dry sowing method that has largely spread across the region, as it entails zero or minimum tillage, which helps conserving not just the soil where it grows, but also irrigation water, and facilitates other sustainable agricultural practices. Since 1967, CIAT (now the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT) has made its contribution to ensure farmers in the region get easily adapted to it.
The Rice Program team at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT is currently led by María Fernanda Álvarez, who holds a PhD in Crop Breeding. The work of this team has been developed by renowned crop breeders, and it has been instrumental in enabling the development of germplasm with the required traits for this sowing method, which places the seed directly onto the soil. Not carrying out the process required in rice swamps can result in significant water savings.
“Our seeds are vigorous; their root growth is suitable for direct seeding and is easily adaptable to different regions across the continent. To achieve this, we have undertaken an intensive three-decade long process of evaluation and breeding”, explained the researcher.
This type of practice was implemented initially in the Program’s plantations located in Santa Rosa, Villavicencio, Meta, where the experimental center of the Colombian National Rice Growers Federation (Fedearroz) operates, and subsequently, in some plantations at the Palmira campus in the Cauca Valley.
The germplasm obtained reaches the Alliance’s partners in Latin America, which has made it easier for countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Venezuela to also be able to use these materials in the selection of varieties adapted to direct seeding in their territories.
“We work directly with the national research centers, as well as with some seed companies. Across Latin America, one of our main partners is the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR), whose Breeding and Agronomy Program has jointly worked with us in positioning direct seeding”, pointed out Álvarez.
Similarly, nowadays, evaluations are being carried out to use the Alliance’s germplasm in several African countries, such as Ghana, Sierra Leona, Madagascar, and Nigeria, where it would be paramount to have this crop alternative to increase their productivity and sustainability.
From transplanting and rice swamps to direct seeding
Several countries in Latin America have benefited from the transition from transplanting and rice swamps to direct seeding, by increasingly adopting technologies, such as the use of improved seeds and mechanization, especially for soil preparation and water management. According to figures from the Rice Observatory, the countries with the highest adoption rates of this method have increased their production and export levels. For example, in 2018, Brazil exported over 1.4 million kilograms of rice; Uruguay, over 828 million of kilograms; and Argentina, close to 351 million, the latter two being net exporters of this grain.
On the other hand, in tropical countries, such as Peru and Colombia, the direct seeding system seems to be gradually reaching some regions, in which the germplasm developed by the Alliance and selected by its partners in those countries has also shown an adequate adaptation.
Environmental issues are another factor that benefits from the use of such method, because it requires a very mild soil preparation on the first layer of soil, without the need of removing or tilling it, which prevents erosion and excessive nutrient leaching. Likewise, it makes a more rational use of water for the crop.
“We hope to see more farmers adopting direct seeding, but we know this will depend on the investment made in technology transfer programs, particularly those targeting smallholders. However, the different research programs at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT generate knowledge that promotes other good practices, in terms of agronomy, regardless of the predominant seeding system. Through FLAR, we have extended the use of direct seeding, and as the Alliance, we take part in projects seeking to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions in rice. Such is the case of the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) system”, pointed out the researcher.
In this effort, CGIAR donors, like the US organizations USAID and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been crucial, as they have provided stability and consistency to the whole seed research process and the promotion of direct seeding. This has significantly contributed to the achievement of goals in all the breeding stages.
“We know that rice production has seen a 13% increase in the last decade, and that it is currently the second source of calories in the Latin American diet, as well as the third most consumed food of plant origin. Therefore, it is our intention to research its sustainability, in terms of resources for farmers, and the stability it should show, in terms of food availability and market prices”, said Álvarez, who leads the Program since 2019, with a passion to closely follow the changes in seeds and apply tools, such as molecular markers, for genetic improvement and boosting crop resilience.
Her team is integrated by 35 collaborators, who have different expertise in fields such as physiology, plant pathology, genetics, and breeding, with different levels of experience and approaches to field and lab work. This has allowed them to closely follow the advantages of direct seeding and its adaptability, as well as to close productivity gaps, in terms of rice hybrids, disease resistance, and climate change.
“We will continue contributing our effort in everything related to Rice Blast management, Rice Hoja Blanca Virus, and abiotic stress, which comprises the tolerance to high night temperatures and low radiation when there is excessive cloud cover. We also hope to be able to expand across Latin America, and thus give the world a more sustainable food”, she concluded.